Catholic Movie Club: What ‘Jaws’ can tell us about the sex abuse crisis
Editor’s note: Join John Dougherty for a discussion of this and other films by visiting the Catholic Movie Club on Facebook.
July is Blockbuster Month at the Catholic Movie Club! Blockbusters are movies at their most maximalist: the ones that draw the biggest crowds and earn the biggest box office. Often they're dismissed as empty noise, but they can also hold deep insights about God and life. So join me as we dig into some of the biggest summer movies of all time and search for the soul in the spectacle.
There is no better place to start than with the original blockbuster: “Jaws” (1975). Directed by the then-unknown Steven Spielberg, “Jaws” made a record-shattering amount of money, reinvented the summer movie landscape and still frequently appears on “best of” lists (including the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films).
“Jaws” is both a nerve-shattering thriller and a biting (sorry) social commentary about the failure of authorities to protect the people in their care.
In “Jaws,” a ravenous great white shark prowls the waters of Amity Island, an idyllic New England beach town. With the death toll rising and tourists arriving in droves for the Fourth of July, new police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) joins offbeat oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and grizzled shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) to stop the monster.
“Jaws” is both a nerve-shattering thriller and a biting (sorry) social commentary about the failure of authorities to protect the people in their care. Amity Island’s mayor and business leaders refuse to close the beaches, more afraid of losing the summer tourist revenue than of the potential human cost. Even when the shark devours children, they make excuses, deny the facts, engage in cover-ups.
The shark serves as a potent metaphor for many American ills. I have seen it referenced, for example, in regard to our national response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the continued scourge of gun violence.
But as a Catholic, “Jaws” makes me think most of the clerical sex abuse crisis. When Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) appeals to the town’s economic interests, I can’t help but hear echoes of church leaders who covered up abuse: We don’t want to cause a scandal. Think of the damage to the school’s reputation, to the parish’s finances. Think of all the good we do; is it really worth putting that at risk? And when a grieving mother confronts Brody after the shark kills her son, I hear echoes of faithful Catholics’ outrage: “You knew there was a shark out there. You knew it was dangerous! But you let people go swimming anyway?”
The scariest thing about “Jaws” is that you don’t see the shark for most of the movie. This decision was partially forced thanks to a malfunctioning robotic shark, but Spielberg also understands that an invisible threat is much more frightening than one you can face head on. It also makes it easier for the town’s leaders to pretend the shark doesn’t exist. That’s how it happens in real life: People hope that if they ignore the danger, they won’t take on the weighty responsibility of addressing it. But a shark can still eat you, whether you see it coming or not.
“Jaws” is a tense and fun summer movie. But five years after the McCarrick abuse story broke, Catholics should also take it as a reminder, a cautionary tale. God calls us to protect people who are vulnerable and to speak out with conviction when we see something wrong. True leadership means making hard and unpopular decisions to keep people safe. “Jaws,” and our faith, reminds us that nothing—not a town’s bottom line or an institution’s good name—is worth even one human life.
“Jaws” is streaming on DirecTV, TNT, TBS and TruTV, and available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.